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Lameness issues on the dairy farm and research update

Marcia Endres

Published in Dairy Star February 12, 2005

Lameness is still an issue on dairy farms today. At the Minnesota Dairy Days held around the state in January, we had a breakout session at each location on lameness in dairy cows. Participants in these sessions agreed that it is a major economic and welfare problem in the industry and on their own farm.

Recent research has reported prevalence of lameness in dairy herds to be approximately 25%. Wisconsin researchers Cook and Nordlund suggest less than 15% lameness prevalence for well-managed dairy herds. During the Dairy Days sessions, we reviewed the recent study these researchers published comparing the behavior of lame and non-lame cows housed either in mattress freestalls or sand freestalls. They reported average lameness prevalence was 11% for sand herds vs. 24% for mattress herds (6 herds each). The researchers selected 10 lame and 10 non-lame cows in each herd and evaluated their daily activity patterns (time spent lying, standing, perching, eating, etc) using video photography. They found that lame cows in sand stalls have similar activity patterns as non-lame cows and they spent a similar amount of time lying down per day. On the other hand, lame cows in mattress herds spent more time standing in the stall than non-lame cows (about 4 hours a day longer!) which impacted their daily lying time.

At the University of Minnesota, we are presently conducting a study looking at the prevalence and risk factors for lameness in freestall herds. In showing a video of that study to Dairy Day participants, one particular item of interest in the video clip was observing a lame cow taking about 30 minutes to lie down in a mattress freestall. This observation substantiates the findings by Cook et al. that lame cows spend a longer time standing in the stall. Therefore, a stall surface that does not offer good traction and cushion will make cows afraid of lying down. And, they hesitate for a longer time by standing in the stall. It is easier to lie down and get up in a stall that offers better traction.

Here are some options to consider to reduce the prevalence of lameness in our dairy herds in freestall housing:

  1. Build or redesign stalls to meet cows’ requirements. Not all producers can have sand-bedded stalls. But perhaps the stalls can be made more comfortable by changing the neck rail height or location, or by reducing the height of the brisket board and making the area in front of it the same level as the rest of the stall, or by adding more bedding to mattress stalls, etc. Producers interested in finding information on freestall or tie stall dimensions can check our facilities resources. In relation to bedding mattress stalls, research done in British Columbia has shown that cows lay down one and one-half hours longer per day if more bedding than the typical 2 pounds was added to the stalls (more like 15 lbs or equivalent to a deep bedded stall). The longer lying time would probably correspond to less standing time in the stall, resulting in quicker lameness recovery.
  2. Improve management factors that might be contributing to increased incidence of lameness. Some factors that come to mind are hoof trimming, footbath use, feeding management to avoid sorting, feed availability, adequately balanced rations, cow handling, walking surfaces, and other factors.
  3. Move lame cows, especially in mattress barns, to a special needs pen with comfortable bedding and more sure footing. This is where the “composting bedded pack” housing concept we are now seeing in Minnesota would be a great option. What about having a compost pen for the lame group of cows?

A commonly asked question at the Dairy Days sessions was in regard to the practice of using rubber flooring as a means to help prevent or reduce lameness. Remember this: Before installing rubber flooring, it is important that stall design be adequate to reduce the chance that cows end up standing or lying down on the rubber floor rather than using the stalls. Studies done in Canada indicated that cows slipped less and walked faster on softer rubber flooring than on concrete. Research in Germany showed the same result when comparing slatted floors covered with rubber mats or not. They also reported an improvement in claw health for cows on the soft rubber slatted floors. The current suggestion is to prioritize the installation of rubber flooring in this order: parlor return lanes, holding pen, milking platform, walkways to and from parlor, the area in front of the feed bunk, and finally the freestall alleys. We suggest the use of soft interlocking rubber flooring that offers some traction and cushion rather that the hard rubber used for conveyor belts. Studies in Canada demonstrated that the hard rubber surface might not result in the same improvement in cows’ behavior.

In summary, lameness is a major economic and welfare problem on dairy farms. It is very important to do whatever we can afford to do to help reduce the prevalence of this disease in our dairies. Stay tuned for results of our research here in Minnesota looking at risk factors for lameness in freestall barns. Our goal is to rank those risk factors so that we can focus on those management concepts that can result in the greatest improvement of reducing lameness in the dairy herd.

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